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A Moroccan brother and sister see if their ancestral home survived the earthquake

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

In Morocco, people are still just getting to some of the mountain villages devastated by last Friday's earthquake, an earthquake that has killed some 3,000 people. NPR's Lauren Frayer joined a sister and brother as they return to see if their ancestral home is still standing.

(CROSSTALK)

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Brother and sister Boujemaa and Aicha Ounasser survived Friday's earthquake. They live in different cities where they felt only tremors. But they grew up in a mountain village near the epicenter. They hadn't been back in six years, and now they're going home to see if anything is left.

(CROSSTALK)

FRAYER: "All of our memories, will they still be there?" - Aicha asks.

"Our elementary school, our late grandmother's house," her brother adds.

They hitchhiked up into these mountains until the roads became unpassable. And now they're walking alongside donkeys ferrying water and blankets uphill. On the outskirts of their village called Tnirte, a cousin comes out to greet them...

(CROSSTALK)

FRAYER: ...And reveals his own staggering loss.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

AICHA OUNASSER: (Non-English language spoken).

FRAYER: "All of them?" - Aicha asks in disbelief.

The cousin's wife and two daughters are all dead. A once idyllic hamlet nestled in apple and apricot groves is now just a giant pile of debris. More than 50 residents died underneath it in a village of just a few hundred. One resident is still missing though, a 9-year-old girl.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHOVELS DIGGING)

FRAYER: Her father is digging through the rubble of their two-story home with Mohammed Wuhalf, a Moroccan search and rescue volunteer.

With your hands, you're digging?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yeah, we are.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Our hands. See?

FRAYER: A human chain carries away debris delicately so as not to collapse any air pockets they hope might be underneath. Then sniffer dogs move in.

There's about 50 villagers lining this pile of rubble, and they're all just straining their ears for a dog's bark.

The dogs stay silent. They'll only bark if they catch the scent of someone alive, not a body.

So what happened?

EDGAR JUAN: It's difficult to say, but with this kind of construction it's very, very difficult to...

FRAYER: Spanish rescuer Edgar Juan says that unlike concrete and rebar, which when they collapse, can leave air pockets, the red clay these buildings are made of becomes dense and impenetrable. The girl, he says, has likely passed away. And relief operations across this quake zone are taking a turn.

JUAN: Sometimes there's a dark phase and...

FRAYER: The father was digging himself.

JUAN: Yes, it's very difficult for him.

FRAYER: The man's wife was killed in the quake too.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Laughter).

FRAYER: Throughout this ordeal, children play tag in what's left of the town square. And Aicha Ounasser, who returned here with her brother, sits back from them under a eucalyptus tree and watches the search for this little girl in horror.

OUNASSER: (Non-English language spoken).

FRAYER: Everyone in this village is like family to me, and our family is now shattered, she says. It's a big wound that'll never heal. Aicha and her brother hitch a ride back down the mountain. And later I get a message from the Spanish rescuers. They've found the body of a 9-year-old girl. Her name was Shaima.

Lauren Frayer, NPR News, in the village of Tnirte in Morocco's Atlas Mountains. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Lauren Frayer
Lauren Frayer covers South Asia for NPR News. In 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.